Walk through the crowded aisles of any Taiwanese night market and it’s easy to see why this destination is a must for any food-curious traveller. Between the cellophane bags of tropical fruit dusted in huameifen (dried plum powder), the magnetic aroma of Taiwanese snacks like fried chicken with basil and the cacophony of dozens of vendors hawking grilled meats and simmered soups, the symphony of senses is nigh-on overwhelming and the allure undeniable.
Taiwanese food culture is an amalgamation of regional Chinese cuisines, indigenous practices and ingredients, and influences from foreign powers such as Japan and the United States. Combine all of these with tightly knit multigenerational families and the bounties of lush forests and deep oceans, and you can perhaps understand at least part of the culinary magic that emerges from this island.
Besides physically going to Taiwan itself – a trip I highly encourage any intrepid food traveller to make – one of the most amazing aspects of this island’s culinary heritage has been the power of its global reach. Long after the initial Chinese migration sprouted localised Chinese restaurants peddling sweet and sour pork and chow mein to residents of world-class cities like New York and London, the humble bubble tea shop – nourishment, social centre and lifeblood of Chinese university students across the globe – gave many individuals their first taste of what Taiwan had to offer.
‘For me, bubble tea was a taste of home; for my non-Chinese friends, it was just a drink that they enjoyed. Sweet, easy to drink and fun to chew on, it was exotic but acceptable, and affordable – important factors for any young student,’ says Gina Chuang, whose family runs the popular ERC café in Taipei, serving Hakka and Taiwanese cuisine. Having grown up in Taiwan but spent most of her early adulthood in the US, Chuang feels that food is one of Taiwan’s greatest and most recognisable assets.
If bubble tea and big straws opened the world’s gustatory floodgates to the temptations of Taiwan, the subsequent popularisation of the guabao (pork belly bun) by American chefs Eddie Huang (Baohaus) and David Chang (Momofuku) sealed the deal: Taiwan was a destination worthy of food investigation and filled with untold edible delights previously unseen by the West.
I asked Sogo Chow, a Shanghai-based Taiwanese entrepreneur who made his fortune opening small Taiwanese snacks kiosks in second-tier cities around the Chinese mainland, about the success of his businesses. ‘I open establishments that give customers a chance to experience the beauty and fun of Taiwan’s food scene,’ he says. ‘Taiwanese food is now well-recogised and respected; the reputation alone is enough to pull customers in to give us a try.’
Chow remarks that Taiwan offers a unique variety of dining options; in addition to the aforementioned night markets that he himself recreates, there is also the unique convergence of multiple Chinese regions in a small physical landmass. In Taipei, you can enjoy the full range of regional dishes, from the dough work of Shandong to the dim sum of Guangdong, all within a stone’s throw of each other.
Read any guidebook or food blog and you will find that Din Tai Fung is potentially the most significant ambassador of Taiwanese food culture. Famous for its xiaolongbao (Shanghainese soup dumplings), immaculate attention to detail and customer service, the restaurant chain is the quintessential Taiwanese success story. Opened by a family that still controls the company, Din Tai Fung was initially slow to grow, but has in the past 20 years established outposts in 14 territories, most of which still warrant long lines at all mealtimes.
As a chef based in Shanghai, the very city that inspired Din Tai Fung’s cuisine, I find the consistency of the food, level of service and training impressive. According to Howard Chen, the man behind outposts in northern China of both Din Tai Fung and shaved ice chain Ice Monster, the secret to the popularity of Taiwanese chains overseas is a combination of their ability to uphold the high quality of the originals on which they’re based, alongside good packaging and well-trained staff.
On a recent trip to Taipei, I was snacking at the esteemed guabao shop, Shi Jia Gua Bao, and I asked my server, surnamed Chen, if she had ever heard of David Chang or Eddie Huang – the men who made the dish famous in the West. She hadn’t.
Surrounded by the buzz of a night market, I realised that at the end of the day, no matter how packaged or reputed, the single thing that will resonate with any diner is soul. That is perhaps something Taiwan does better than almost anyone else – it bares its culinary soul and is proud of what it’s putting out.
The pride and transference of cultural values also contributes to an incredible culinary diaspora. With government initiatives in place to encourage young citizens to open their own businesses, it’s natural that aspiring entrepreneurs want to start their own food and beverage businesses. As such, the continuing influx of young blood has created a market culture that combines the tradition of quality with the innovation and marketing power of youth.
‘How do ours compare to the American version?’ Chen asked.
Pointing to the empty plate in front of me, I replied, ‘I would take these any day of the week.’
Bubble tea, also known as boba tea, is one of the most famous Taiwanese snacks that has taken the world by storm and inspired a range of Insta-famous treats. Here are three of the craziest.
Baiza Sushi in Jakarta prides itself as the first restaurant in the world to combine the Japanese staple with the trending drink. Besides the mango sticky rice sushi, adventurous diners can also go for the savoury version with seared salmon – both garnished with heaps of chewy tapioca balls.
Foodie Star restaurant in Chiayi, southwest Taiwan, blurs the line between sweet and savoury with its boba pizza. According to one local food blogger, the brown sugar-flavoured tapioca balls and melted mozzarella work surprisingly well together.
Known for its creative use of sauces for seafood dishes, Kuala Lumpur’s Crab Generation restaurant chain has added a boba crab to its menu, which is served with a buttery sauce and topped with loads of tapioca balls. The divisive dish sparked heated discussion online when it was introduced in May 2019.